Afghanistan, other countries see worrisome religious freedom trends, USCIRF warns

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Afghanistan and four other countries should be added to the ten countries already recognized by the U.S. State Department for having particular religious freedom problems, the U.S. Commission on Interreligious Freedom said in its annual report released Monday.

“We are disheartened by the deterioration of freedom of religion or belief in some countries— especially Afghanistan under the Taliban’s de facto government since August,” Nadine Maenzea, USCIRF chair, said on April 25. “Religious minorities have faced harassment, detention, and even death due to their faith or beliefs, and years of progress toward more equitable access to education and representation of women and girls have disappeared.”

“Meanwhile, USCIRF is encouraged by the Biden administration’s continued prioritization of international religious freedom during its first year. To continue this progress, we strongly urge the administration to implement USCIRF’s recommendations,” Maenzea continued.

She particularly asked for the Biden administration to designate Nigeria as a “country of particular concern” and to expand its priority refuge designation “to grant access for at-risk religious groups in Afghanistan.”

USCIRF is a bipartisan federal commission that advises Congress and the U.S. government and investigates religious freedom violations around the world. Depending on its findings, the commission asks that the U.S. State Department designate countries as “countries of particular concern,” or CPCs. The label identifies foreign governments that engage in or tolerate “systemic, ongoing, and egregious” religious freedom violations. The designation opens the door to consequences including trade and funding sanctions.

The USCIRF request includes 10 countries the U.S. State Department already designated as countries of particular concern in November 2021: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.

In addition to these, the commission recommends that Afghanistan, India, Nigeria, Syria, and Vietnam also be designated countries of particular concern. The commission voiced regret that the State Department dropped Nigeria from its designation list after only one year. In Nigeria, “religious freedom conditions remain dire,” the report says.

The religious freedom situation in Afghanistan has worsened since the return of the Taliban to power. Adherents of other beliefs, including Muslims whose belief and practices differ from the Taliban’s, are “at risk of grave danger,” the report says. Most Hindus and Sikhs have fled the country, while converts to Christianity, Bahais, and Ahmadiyya Muslims practice their religions in secret.

Though USCIRF had requested that Russia receive the CPC designation as far back as 2017, the State Department did not put Russia on its list until last year.  

The latest USCIRF report, which concerns the year 2021, cites Russia’s persecution of religious minorities. Jehovah’s Witnesses have been banned since 2017 and prosecuted for alleged extremism. Last year 105 adherents were sentenced to prison, including some in Russia-occupied Crimea. Also facing persecution are Muslims, Protestants, members of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, Falun Gong members, and practitioners of indigenous religions groups.

In Vietnam, authorities continue to persecute independent religious groups including Protestant Christians and Buddhists. Christians from the Hmong and Montagnard ethnic groups are effectively stateless because local authorities refuse to issue them identity documents and there are persistent land disputes between Catholic communities and local governments.

China continues to implement its “sinicization of religion” policy and demands religious groups conform to communist ideology and policy. Particularly vulnerable to prosecution are adherents and groups perceived to have foreign influence, including underground Catholics, house church Protestants, Uyghurs and other Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, and Falun Gong.

In India, the government’s strong Hindu nationalist agenda tends to negatively affect religious minorities, including Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, and Dalits. Anti-conversion laws at the national, state, and local level can be enforced against non-Hindu groups and former Hindus.

Religious minorities in Pakistan suffered targeted killings, lynchings, mob violence, forced conversion, and desecration at houses of worship and cemeteries. Anti-blasphemy laws, as well as unofficial accusations of blasphemy, can lead to violence or prosecution of minorities.

In Iran, scores of Christians have been arrested on various charges, including propaganda against the government.

As for Nigeria, both state and non-state actors commit “widespread and egregious religious freedom violations,” USCIRF says. Criminal and armed groups have attacked mosques, churches, while priests, pastors and imams were kidnapped and held for ransom. Boko Haram still controls some territory and conducts attacks.

Nury Turkel, vice-chair of USCIRF, said that in 2021 “the U.S. government continued to condemn abuses of religious freedom and hold perpetrators accountable through targeted sanctions and other tools at its disposal.”

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“Moving forward, the United States should take additional steps to support freedom of religion or belief around the world,” Turkel said.

Another aspect of the report is the recommendations for countries to place on the U.S State Department Special Watch List for their governments’ “perpetration or toleration of severe violations.” Algeria, Cuba, and Nicaragua were placed on this list last year. USCIRF recommendations now include Azerbaijan, the Central African Republic, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Turkey, and Uzbekistan. The Central African Republic had been removed from last year’s recommendation list, but last year witnessed a reversal of trends in religious targeting and violence.


Some responses to the Covid-19 pandemic negatively affected religious freedom. Some religious minority communities, like Christians in Algeria, where not allowed to re-open even though mosques were allowed to do so while respecting mitigation measures. Some religious prisoners of conscience in Iran and India, among other countries, saw their health “gravely endangered” by government failures to provide protection from the disease in prison.

Some 84 countries criminalize blasphemy. Allegations of blasphemy can result in state violence, mob violence or persecution towards religious minorities as well as censorship.

In Belarus, the government has pressured Christian clergy who support the political opposition. Polish Catholic priests frequently face problems renewing their official permission to remain in the country. In Sudan, political upheaval has caused concern that the new military government could erode gains under the previous civilian leadership.

The USCIRF report faults Poland for legal charges against three LGBT activists who posted religious posters depicting the Virgin Mary in a rainbow halo. The posters were placed near a church which made statements the activists opposed. The report also faults Finland for the prosecution of a member of Parliament and a Lutheran bishop for statements expressing religious views on homosexuality, saying that “vague and overbroad hate speech laws” that criminalize non-violent speech can cause human rights conflicts.

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Religious intolerance in Europe seriously affects both Muslims and Jews, who in some countries face bans on religious garb or halal or kosher animal slaughter in addition to exclusion or social pressures. In some parts of Europe, Jews face anti-Semitic physical assaults and vandalism. Muslims face similar pressures, as well as legal and political targeting by leaders who say they are defending secularism.

“European Christians also faced intolerance and hate crimes, representative of a rising problem over the past several years,” the report says. “Christians endured physical and verbal assaults, and in some cases their community property experienced vandalism, desecration, theft, and arson.”

In particular, the USCIRF report notes a December 2021 Marian procession in Paris during which Catholic participants faced threats and were doused in water.

Bangladesh saw a wave of communal violence against Hindus in October. In Sri Lanka since the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings, the government has exploited anti-terrorism laws and other laws to target religious minorities, especially Muslims. In Nepal, converts to Christianity from Hinduism can face persecution under anti-proselytization laws.

The report also includes USCIRF’s Freedom of Religion or Belief Victims List and its Religious Prisoners of Conscience Project. It recommends seven non-state actors to be to be named “entities of particular concern.” These include Boko Haram and several Islamic State groups.

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